Rupture in Remote Australia

Even though we have all witnessed the whirl of frenzied media coverage of the Alice Springs crime wave, encountering the newly security-shuttered shop-fronts along the Todd Mall and surrounding business district is a shock. As one local and long-time resident observed, the place now resembles the troubled towns of western New South Wales in the early 1980s. This man, with several decades of commitment to local Aboriginal families, is himself tired of the home invasions. He has reluctantly succumbed to the inevitable and erected a security fence around his house.

Alice Springs has long thrived on the dynamism of fleeting visitations and expenditure by domestic and international tourists. The town is marketed for promised encounters with authentic ancient culture but has long presented a jarring dichotomy between the commercialisation of Aboriginal cultural production and the bureaucratisation of Aboriginal disadvantage. In recent months something in these circumstances has accelerated. Break-ins have become more frequent and more terrifying. Hunger remains a prime motivation, but increasingly trespassers are more intimidating, and their demands are for alcohol and car keys.

Car thefts from homes as well as commercial dealers, ram-raids through shopping centres, repeat home invasions and business break-ins and traumatic incidents of physical and in some cases sexual assault are leading to a generalised fear as well as an exodus of long-term residents. Police have issued warnings for people to avoid the CBD at night. Businesses are closing. Prominent shop-fronts are boarded up, including venues that had been highly valued centres for convivial gatherings. Across all the industries that enable this town to operate, staff shortages are widespread. Qantas is cutting flights in and out of Alice for the second time in a year. Service providers are finding it extremely difficult to fill vacancies. In the middle of the day, the shopping precinct is eerily quiet. People are staying away, preferring to shop online and have groceries delivered rather than run the gauntlet of this newly unpredictable public space.

Alice Springs has gone off like an emergency beacon, but the situation elsewhere is also grim. In Darwin, six times the size of Alice, similar problems abound, even if they are less reported on and less visible given the residential integration of visiting Aboriginal people in housing commission and church-provided estates in leafy suburbs. In Darwin, as in Alice, people from remote communities are increasingly coming into the city for hospital treatment for preventable diseases—rheumatic heart disease, kidney failure, cancer. In Darwin, sick people get reasonable hospital treatment, and they are in the company of supportive kin who ensure sufferers do not die alone. But they and their visitors live in especially overcrowded situations—up to twenty people in three-bedroom unfurnished public housing—or in the long grass. At least when suburban housing is available there are some benefits. Unlike the conditions people must endure in their home locations, there is access to cheaper food and reliable power as those who are desperately ill seek the comfort of air-conditioning in a climate that is heating to unbearable levels.

On the face of it, the situation in Alice Springs, Darwin and reportedly elsewhere presents a paradox. In its proclamation of the Voice to Parliament referendum, the new federal government has pledged to prioritise recognition of the distinctive claims and needs of First Nations communities. But at the same time, social unrest on the ground across parts of regional and remote Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland is exposing the depth and complexity of those needs. After more than a decade of near-complete silence following the moral outrage associated with the early days of the Northern Territory Emergency Response—or Intervention—the media are applying new levels of attention to what is happening in the Northern Territory. The cascading negative impacts of the legislative regime associated with the Intervention are back in the spotlight.

But no amount of attention to alcohol-fuelled violence and debate over alcohol regulation can get at what is now in train. As many rural and remote Aboriginal communities are being pulled apart and suffering profound demoralisation, government funding streams are delivering palliative programs rather than the productive and preventative approaches that are needed to address historical shortfalls and systemic failure. Australians are being asked to vote in support of the constitutional establishment of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament while the work of successive governments, Coalition and Labor alike, has been complicit in the killing of First Nations people.

The explosion of violence is not as simple as black attacks on white residents. Local reports and observations suggest that aggravated assaults are often random and are brazenly carried out by itinerant youth from small remote towns. Their movement into regional centres like Alice is the inevitable outcome of the years of punitive governance which commenced in 1996 with the election of the Howard government, deepening poverty and unravelling social order in the places they call home. Urban Australians have little sense of just how dire this situation has become. Fifteen years ago, the Intervention set in train the systematic undermining of local community-based governance, authority and service provision; the outlawing of the disciplinary practices of customary law; and the replacement of self-governed community development employment programs with punitive, utterly impoverishing work-for-the-dole ‘mutual obligation’ requirements.

Today, a generation of people who are now young adults have grown up without any coherently structured authority in their lives aside from policing, the workings of Centrelink, and the youth justice regime. They have witnessed the police killing of Kumanjayi Walker. Many know first-hand the horrors of Don Dale. They have been eyewitnesses to the disempowerment and humiliation of their parents and grandparents. They have been subject to the systematic outsourcing of community employment and multiple forms of support and care. They know hunger, grief, alcohol-fuelled violence, stress and overcrowding as the normal conditions of daily life. And they have absorbed the widely circulating message—the symbolic force of the Intervention that still circulates nationally—that there is no hope and no future for Aboriginal people on Country or in remote communities. Attention to social media, meanwhile, provides a constant reminder of how well other people live, as well as how their own lives are regarded by others.

It was always only a matter of time before deep governmental neglect coupled with intensified surveillance of Aboriginal residents of small townships and homelands would drive more and more people off their ancestral Country and into regional centres. This was predicted even as the Intervention was launched. The Howard government introduced a comprehensive program of normalisation after having declared self-determination to have been a ‘failed social experiment’.

A failure in what sense? It is increasingly common to hear today’s generation of Indigenous elders recall the period of the disbanded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the positive possibilities for Aboriginal political representation it offered. They particularly talk about two of ATSIC’s major Indigenous-specific programs: the Community Development Employment Projects scheme, which enabled more employment, more income, more flexibility and more autonomy, and the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program, which, while grossly underfunded, enabled local delivery of housing support and maintenance. With the benefit of hindsight, as well as according to official health and employment statistics, it is now clear that the less-than-perfect governmental structures of the self-determination era worked far more effectively than any of the subsequent social experimentations driven by ideology and political opportunism.

The Robodebt royal commission has exposed how the refusal of political masters to take responsibility for the devastating impacts of illegal and destructive policy has become a commonplace. The same could be said of the Community Development Program—a manifestation of modern-day slavery that punishes and penalises—which under Tony Abbott replaced the earlier CDEP, from 2015. It is difficult to imagine any of the current generation of political and bureaucratic elites accepting responsibility for eliminating institutions and programs in Indigenous affairs that worked reasonably well and could have been improved with proper support.

There have been unprecedented shifts across this period in the demographic composition of the Indigenous population and in land tenure arrangements. In 1996, remote-living Aboriginal people accounted for a third of the total Indigenous population. Today they account for just 15 per cent. At the same time, post-Mabo rights and interests in land that then only covered 11 per cent of the continent has expanded to over 50 per cent, with most of that estate covering the remote interior and the tropical north of the continent. There is a deep paradox here: the proportion of the Indigenous population residing in remote Australia is declining while the rights and interests in land of those 150,000 people have rapidly spatially expanded. To spell out the consequences: simultaneous with the expansion of these rights in land across a massive area of the continent there is escalating disadvantage. Ancestral land is returned, but the resourcing required to enable people to inhabit that land and make a decent living on it is withheld. Human misery and statistical disparities continue to widen despite a National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Remarkably, despite the relentless onslaught across these communities people continue to prise open cracks of relative autonomy in which to pursue the management of their Country and care of children, as well as income-generating cultural production and enterprise.

More than twenty-five years after the Howard government first came to power, might we be witnessing signs that the grim stranglehold of neoliberal principles and practice over Indigenous policy is loosening? The Albanese government’s new language of care, respect and integrity contrasts strongly with what came before, but these terms will ring hollow as technocratic soundbites until they are given heft in genuine new approaches to policy. And on that front, it is hard to see what will come next.

National attention to the concerns of First Nations communities has been newly ignited in the debates surrounding the Voice to Parliament referendum. How might the issues discussed here be addressed from the perspective of this national priority?

Firstly, in the most negative scenario and as narrated diversely by both conservative and progressive proponents of the No campaign, it could function as a body that adds yet another administrative mechanism to the existing workings of government—a First Nations lobby group with a platform to speak but little chance of effecting significant change. If the Voice is to have an advisory role to both parliament and the executive—something that is not yet resolved—there is the distinct possibility that it will be toothless. While this is not mentioned by the constitutional legal experts now offering adaptive running commentary, the Voice may provide little more than a distinct First Nations perspective on the current institutional arrangements for reporting to parliament on the human rights compliance of proposed laws. It is timely to recall that the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act (2011) has not been effective in stopping discriminatory laws such as compulsory income management, which the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights identified as contravening Australia’s commitments to uphold agreed international standards.

In a second scenario, the Voice is conceived as a kind of magic bullet, as suggested by prominent Yes advocates who are anxious to disrupt the No campaign. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney, for instance, said that a Voice to Parliament would have prevented the Alice Springs crisis, a claim swiftly taken up by others. Such a claim presumes the Voice would have an unrivalled capacity to influence the direction of policy-making, in turn possibly opening the way to legal contestation if ignored. This scenario overlooks the well-entrenched tendency of governments to selectively enlist expert advice to back in whatever approach they have already committed to take.

To see the Voice as anything like a magic bullet is also to load it with the same kind of impossible responsibility for problem solving in remote Aboriginal Australia as land rights were saddled with four decades ago. Or the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy a decade later, which looked to deliver statistical equality in employment, income, education and welfare dependence by the year 2000. Or the Council of Australian Government’s National Indigenous Reform Agreement, which was going to reduce disparities between Indigenous and other Australians in a decade to 2018. Or the most recent National Agreement on Closing the Gap, ‘co-designed’ by all Australian governments and the Coalition of Peaks, which looks to deliver improvements across seventeen targets by 2030 but is already showing signs of failing at the national level, let alone regionally. The outcome of the Voice in this second scenario would likely be the same as before: First Nations people will be blamed for its failure to deliver.

In a third scenario the Voice could establish a holding place for a genuine reworking of governance in partnership. This is the potential with which the referendum vote is being heavily invested by agencies working closest to those whose Indigeneity is entwined with an enduring deep poverty and the anomic situation unfolding across many parts of rural and remote Australia.

But partnerships of what kind? Recognition of difference has become a very complex proposition, and not just between First Nations and other Australians, requiring attention to more nuanced notions of difference and aspiration within the rapidly growing Indigenous population, an increasing proportion of whom live in more densely settled parts of the continent. Some of the implications of this for the future are likely to emerge in the state-based truth-telling and treaty processes currently underway, as well as the federal government’s own commitment to take up these elements articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

If the situation in Alice Springs can be read as a deeply disturbing distress call, it is also a call to dispense with the vacuous refrain of successive governments to ‘govern for all Australians’ and the related mantra of delivering sameness of outcomes (closing the gap). A successful Voice risks echoing a version of this: how can the special needs of one jurisdiction be adequately represented under a national model? Rather, government, and indeed the larger Australian community, faced with circumstances of profound cultural crisis and unparalleled need, must respond to the specific conditions and meanings of Country that shape the orientations of First Nations communities in these places. If Indigenous residents of remote communities are, as suggested here, in the process of being governed to death, then surely it is time for a radical rethink. Remote communities need a great deal more than a Voice. They need a comprehensive reorientation of governmental practices. They need and deserve that we systematically address the destruction of their community-based institutions, as well as the deep neglect, poverty, chronic illness, lateral violence, and trauma that has deepened over the past quarter of a century. Only then might the repair of people, the rebuilding of trust among neighbours, and something akin to genuine political and economic empowerment begin to take shape.

‘It’s Raining Motorcars’: Mining and the destruction of Aboriginal Sacred Sites

Jack Green, Seán Kerins, 20 May 2021

We were out in Gudanji country, a place some of us older people know well. But we didn’t know where we were. The river had gone, huge mountains of waste rock were piled high in the sky, blocking our view of The Barramundi Dreaming… We were lost in our own country.

About the authors

Melinda Hinkson

Melinda Hinkson is a social anthropologist, executive director of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies and an Arena Publications Editor. In March 2023 she appeared as an expert witness for the Parumpurru (Justice) committee of Yuendumu at the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

More articles by Melinda Hinkson

Jon Altman

Jon Altman has a background in economics and anthropology and is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University. He works on practical issues around environmental, economic and social justice for Indigenous peoples in Australia and beyond with a number of not-for-profits. He has been an active participant in the Arena project for 20 years.

More articles by Jon Altman

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Something is missing from this analysis. It’s that Indigenous elders — or a good cross-section of them — have asked for the Voice. Not some white policy-makers. Not the Albanese government. Not a bunch of constitutional lawyers. There’s a history of Indigenous struggles and aspirations that has been ignored here, a history partly spelt out in ‘Everything you need to know about the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ by Megan Davis & George Williams (UNSW Press, 2021). I’ve summarised some of the points from that book in my take on the Voice on my website.

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